Historically, America’s approach to criminal justice swings back and forth like a pendulum between an emphasis on punishment and an emphasis on rehabilitation. Wisdom incorporates both approaches, but in California, the pendulum has swung heavily toward the rehabilitative aspect of accountability as opposed to punishment. While setting aside a full comparison of the two approaches, this article focuses on the current government’s tactic of misleading the public about propositions that use a message of “public safety” to impose significant criminal justice reforms.
It is the responsibility of governments to be transparent and truthful about their legislative goals and why they deem them necessary — especially when they affect crime victims’ rights. Yet California political leaders have decided instead to mislead the public in a series of criminal justice reform statutes that have had serious consequences for crime victims. Those initial changes have led to a slew of new proposals that essentially reward criminals for inflicting pain and suffering on others.
The two best examples of the government misleading the public can be seen in recent propositions approved by voters that had nothing to do with accomplishing what these propositions claimed they wanted to achieve. In November 2014, voters approved “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” known at the ballot box as Proposition 47. Many voters never bother to read the fine print associated with the laws on which they are asked to vote or rely on 30-second paid advertisements to get their information. Voters trust that when it comes to legislation, political leaders will not mislead them about the purpose or effect of the legislation being proposed.
Unfortunately, Proposition 47 made a number of changes to the criminal justice system, of which many voters were likely unaware. First, it reduced all drug possession cases that were formerly felonies to misdemeanors. Second, it allowed for the reduction of most felonious property theft crimes to misdemeanors absent a finding that the theft resulted in more than $950 in loss, which rarely occurs. Third, it allowed these changes to apply retroactively. This means if anyone had previously been convicted of one of these crimes as a felony, they could now petition to have those crimes resentenced to misdemeanors, even if the person had already served his or her punishment.
To sum up, Proposition 47 greatly reduced the punishment for numerous offenses associated with drug possession and property crimes. While some citizens have called for criminal justice reform over the years, viewing penalties for so-called “low-level crimes” such as these as too extreme, these reforms did nothing to make neighborhoods and schools safer, as the proposition’s name claimed. Even those convinced that reduced penalties for these types of crimes are necessary would be hard-pressed to explain how simply reducing those penalties would make communities safer.
In reality, political officials, especially those who want criminal justice reform, know that most voters do not read beyond the proposition’s name. A voter sees that name and likely concludes, “I want safe neighborhoods and schools,” and votes yes, which is exactly what happened. If political leaders had called this proposition by its proper name, “The Crime Sentence Reduction Act,” it likely would have failed.
Two years later, buoyed by the success of Proposition 47 and the belief that a majority of Californians wanted reduced sentences for most crimes, political leaders sought voter approval for Proposition 57, “The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act.” Approved by voters in 2016, this proposition provided for significantly earlier parole for any person convicted of a non-violent felony offense who was sentenced to prison.
Second, it allowed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which oversees management of the prison system, to grant any state prison inmate additional good behavior credits. There was no limitation on which inmates would be eligible for these credits nor by how much CDCR could increase them. This meant violent offenders could be released from prison much sooner.
Third, it required CDCR to adopt regulations that would protect and enhance public safety but did not clarify how exactly regulations enacted by this statute could be used to accomplish this.
Lastly, it made it much more difficult for prosecutors to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, and it eliminated the practice entirely for juveniles under the age of 16 regardless of the crimes they committed. In summary, Proposition 57 made it easier for prisoners to be released much sooner, and it made it harder for prosecutors to file criminal charges against juveniles in adult court.
Again, no matter how one feels about these changes, how exactly does releasing inmates significantly earlier from prison and not prosecuting juveniles in adult court make the public safer? One only needs to review the most recent crime statistics to get that answer. Both the violent crime rate and the property crime rate have been steadily increasing in California and Ventura County since 2019. Thus, despite its misleading name, Proposition 57 had nothing to do with public safety or rehabilitation. However, political leaders knew if they had called this proposition by its proper name, “The Release Violent Prisoners Significantly Earlier Act,” it likely would not have passed.
Public trust has undoubtedly been a casualty of the erroneous labeling of these statutes. And because of this mislabeling, the passage of these two propositions has created a false narrative about Californians’ view of criminal justice in general, prompting political leaders to propose new acts at the legislative level that would eviscerate victims’ rights and put the public in danger.
The effect of some of these changes was seen recently. At the end of April, California announced with little notice that 76,000 inmates, many of whom were either violent or repeat offenders, would be released much earlier than expected. This sudden release of inmates was made possible by the passage of Proposition 57, “The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act.” If political leaders had told voters in 2016 that the early release of violent and repeat offenders would result from the passage of this act, it likely would not have passed. Also, as demonstrated by this early release, Proposition 57 had nothing to do with public safety or rehabilitation.
Recently, in Ventura County, a 15-year-old was charged with two counts of murder — separate acts committed approximately one month apart. By definition, his actions make this juvenile a serial killer. Yet, because of Proposition 57, the juvenile cannot be charged in adult court and face the stiffer penalties often associated with multiple acts of murder. Instead, he was sentenced under juvenile law, which meant that the maximum penalty he would receive would be to remain in a juvenile facility until age 25. For the victims’ families, there was no justice, and there may never be.
As noted above, the violent and property crime rate has steadily increased since 2019. These increases could be traced directly back to the passage of Propositions 47 and 57, as punishment for property crimes has been drastically reduced, and violent offenders are released back into the public far sooner than they should be. Thus, despite claims of “public safety,” political leaders instead misled voters into voting for criminal statutes that have had the opposite effect. There is no sign these leaders will stop as they continue to propose changes to criminal law that only serve to help criminals and leave victims to fend for themselves.
Regardless of how one feels about these reforms, all citizens can agree that if the government has to mislead the public to secure such critical laws, there must be something wrong with the laws. All voters should be encouraged to take a more active role in learning about the changes that have been made in the area of criminal law and the changes being currently proposed. Public safety must be the priority, a fact many political leaders have chosen to ignore. It isn’t only crime victims and their families who pay the price when the voter is misled — all citizens do.
John Barrick has worked as a prosecutor in the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office for more than 16 years, prosecuting some of the most violent crimes committed in the county. He currently serves in the Major Crimes-Homicide Unit. He is also a 2022 candidate for District Attorney.